REVIEW: America and the Tintype by Steven Kasher
By Jendayi Omowale
America and the Tintype is a cataloged history of the sensational photographic tintype medium that was prominent before, amid, and after the American Civil War that is compiled by nineteenth-century photography experts Steven Kasher and ICP’s curator Brian Wallis. A tintype is a photographic process that was introduced around 1856 that is created by imprinting a positive on a thin sheet of metal that is covered by an enamel or lacquer. Tintypes became important to nineteenth-century American photography as they were a cheap, durable substitute to their predecessor the daguerreotype, which was a form of photography that was mainly exploited by the upper-class American society, as it was an expensive and lengthy process. Therefore, tintypes showed art historians an accurate visual portrayal of working-class American society. In America and the Tintype, there are a great number of tintypes detailed with textual information that frame these pictures in the appropriate historical context, and this photobook is a delightful overture to a substantial part of nineteenth-century American photography for any reader.
The book is divided into carefully curated chapters that detail the different aspects of the aesthetic and sociological history behind the medium of the tintype. These chapters go into even greater specificity, using reliable historical documentation and evidence to thoroughly explain to the reader the various principles, actions, and reasons behind each featured tintype, allowing for a layered and meaningful discussion about this particular photographic medium. America and the Tintype uses these enigmatic images to discuss the medium itself and the changing tides of nineteenth-century America with clever methodology. The book goes over the process of tintype creation, how the tintype became a popularized photographic medium, and the means in which tintypes portray the trends and conditions of the spectrum of the American economic and social classes during the nineteenth-century. It also covers particular artistic nuances that make the medium of the tintype a marvelous factor of the photographic progress in American art; for example, the process of creating a tintype allows each copy to be an individualized piece, as a minute change occurs with each copy, and that, although a tintype was accepted to be a type of concrete reality as a photograph, the medium had tiny areas of deception like the actual image being reversed when printed. Readers of America and the Tintype will be impressed with the thorough historical lenses provided to accompany this vast collection of charismatic photography.
The essays that are joined to each cluster of tintype photography are written by Geoffrey Batchen, an extensively published photography historian who studies the ways in which photography appears in every aspect of life and society, and Karen Halttunen, an expert in American history. Both of these individuals make an excellent team to critique and contextualize the American tintype and examine its various positions and outlets throughout the nineteenth-century. Each tintype that headlines a chapter is assigned a developed narrative that explores the diverse causes, effects, and broader associations that allow readers to explore the breadth of the historical and cultural significance of tintypes in early American society and art. Halttunen and Batchen leave no aspect of the tintype uncovered as they explore the birth and rise of stereotypical scenes and characters in tintype images, their usage as portraiture, medical documentation, their recording of the working-class and their mannerisms and occupations, and the large-scale death of the tintype with the introduction of mass-produced, “dry-plate negatives.” The brilliant organization of America and the Tintype by Steven Kasher, Geoffrey Batchen and Karen Halttunen resulted in a cultural and historical mosaic of nineteenth-century American history in a way that captivates the readers of this photobook.
America and the Tintype is a witty and authentic perspective on the photographic medium of the tintype; a catalog of an important cornerstone of American photography showcased in an intellectual manner that makes readers aware of the rich history behind these metallic images. It is an eccentric and ambitious book, divulging in the quirks of this rapidly changing century in American history through aesthetic principles and photographic creation of these tintypists. America and the Tintype is a photography book that is a great introduction and analysis of an often neglected yet critical chapter of photography in American art history, and the unconventional tintypes featured in this book will hold a visual stamina and significance in the history of photography as it continues to evolve well into the twenty-first century.